As US energy grid grows, heeding local concerns smooths the way

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at the ground-breaking of the Ten West Link transmission line in Tonopah, Arizona, on January 19, 2023. Mike Quigley/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at the ground-breaking of the Ten West Link transmission line in Tonopah, Arizona, on January 19, 2023. Mike Quigley/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

What’s the context?

To speed electrical grid expansion, deliver green energy and overcome siting opposition, governments and companies are listening more to community needs

  • Outdated grid poses bottleneck for new renewables
  • Local opposition has slowed power line construction
  • Involving communities helps speed up the work

WASHINGTON – When Mike Quigley first heard about plans for a major new electrical transmission line running through central Arizona, it was with a mix of emotions.

The 125-mile (200-km) high-voltage line, known as Ten West Link, would bring solar energy from the Arizona desert to millions of consumers in California – part of the more than doubling of electrical grid capacity the government last month said is needed to decarbonise the energy sector by 2035.

Around the country, thousands of new miles of transmission lines must be built every year to support the U.S administration's aim of switching to an economy built on green electrical power, according to government estimates.

Quigley, Arizona state director for conservation group the Wilderness Society, supports the goal of more renewable energy. But he was frustrated the proposed line would cut through a wildlife reserve and a remote canyon, and would adjoin local communities.

"On principle I don't think wildlife refuges are appropriate places to install massive infrastructure," Quigley told Context.

"But who wants a big power line in their backyard? We were advocating that it shouldn't go through the wildlife refuge, but also don't want it to go through people's backyards."

Then came a surprise: Officials and the project developer not only listened to concerns, but after a year of meetings changed the route, to instead largely follow an interstate highway.

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Vice President Kamala Harris attended the groundbreaking in January, and electricity is expected to flow in the coming months.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which approved the project's alternative route, said in a statement that it recognised the importance of Ten West Link for future renewable energy projects, and thus invested a significant amount of time to proactively address potential concerns.

For Quigley, such "open-mindedness" by officials feels like a key lesson as the United States makes more than $30 billion available for electrical grid upgrades, which the White House last month called the largest such investment in U.S. history.

"We're about to embark on an unprecedented buildout," said Jill Tauber, who focuses on energy issues for Earthjustice, a public interest law group.

Along with others, it has been pushing President Joe Biden's administration on a series of transmission principles that urge early, strengthened engagement with local communities.

"If you look at the history of infrastructure development in this country, all too often it's been without input from impacted communities," she said. "We need to do a lot more to ensure we're building the right way and not just replicating historical inequities."

While concerns about effective local consultation receive significant attention, Tauber said competing priorities, including the desire to quickly get new capacity in place, remain significant.

"In the dialogue happening nationally on this issue, there's a sense that to build quicker, we need to eliminate protections – that they're the root of the problem," she said.

A graphic showing the electric grid in the United States. Source: Homeland Infrastructure Foundation Level Database (HIFLD). Thomson Reuters Foundation/Diana Baptista

A graphic showing the electric grid in the United States. Source: Homeland Infrastructure Foundation Level Database (HIFLD). Thomson Reuters Foundation/Diana Baptista

A graphic showing the electric grid in the United States. Source: Homeland Infrastructure Foundation Level Database (HIFLD). Thomson Reuters Foundation/Diana Baptista

Renewables bottleneck

But openness to local concerns may also be important for ensuring the U.S. transmission expansion does happen in a timely fashion.

Negotiations over Ten West Link's route were "also a success for the line owner," Quigley noted. "They'll actually have their line finished, rather than being tied up in battles in court."

Many interstate transmission projects have been shelved in recent years due to opposition from local groups and public utility commissions.

Opposition to renewable energy initiatives, including transmission projects, rose by 57% from May 2022 to May 2023 compared with the previous year, according to research by Columbia Law School.

Aging and inadequate electricity transmission infrastructure, built for fossil fuels, poses a huge obstacle to a green transition, said Nathanael Greene, a senior advocate with the clean energy programme at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington think-tank.

Almost twice as many new renewable projects are waiting to be connected to the grid than are already operating, said Greene, who co-wrote a paper on the issue in September.

"We are at a unique moment," he said. "We have an incredible opportunity to accelerate the buildout of clean electricity," but that potential is "bottlenecking at the transmission system."

Changing that is constrained in part by the complexities of getting multiple jurisdictions, landowners and others along a transmission corridor to agree to construction – especially of the large, interstate lines that are now a priority.

Historically power lines were smaller, for more local use, but now there is growing recognition that larger lines are badly needed, said Christina Hayes, executive director of Americans for a Clean Energy Grid, a coalition of industry, labour and other groups.

Policymakers and project developers have learned from local opposition to oil and gas pipelines, she said, and similar opposition has led to delays of more than two decades for some transmission projects.

Now "there's a real recognition that taking care of this on the front end forecloses litigation on the back end," she said.

Current transmission capacity (2020). Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) 'NoCCS' scenario for 2020.

Current transmission capacity (2020). Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) "NoCCS" scenario for 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Diana Baptista

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Community benefits

A range of regulatory shifts are proposed that could bolster requirements - and in some cases resources - for community engagement around new transmission projects, and legislators are actively debating the measures.

"There is bipartisan consensus that early and meaningful community engagement must be at the centre of any permitting reform effort," said a spokesperson for Senator Martin Heinrich, who in June proposed legislation that seeks to speed up transmission line permitting.

That would happen in part by trying to ensure legally enforceable agreements are put in place between local communities and project developers, spelling out restrictions and any benefits local communities can expect.

While such agreements are not new, they have an uneven history, said Devashree Saha, director of the U.S. clean energy economy programme at the World Resources Institute, a Washington think-tank.

"A lot of times, benefits really haven't accrued to local communities. They have been burned a lot," she said.

Local benefits from such projects can be both monetary and non-monetary, including things like requirements for hiring among the local workforce, investments in skills training, environmental remediation and so on, said Saha, who co-wrote a report on the issue in August.

Some communities have even negotiated for an ongoing share of revenue from projects, said Saha's colleague Jennifer Chen, a senior clean energy manager.

She pointed to an agreement with the Morongo Band of Mission Indians in California, which in 2021 became part owner of an upgraded transmission line carrying renewable energy crossing its lands.

"The bigger idea is that we'd like to get more creative about how we share benefits," Chen said.

Reducing conflicts over creation of new green-energy infrastructure can benefit everyone, she said.

"If you can take into account siting risks early in the planning phase, you can end up with an outcome that is more fair and likely to face fewer siting risks."

(Reporting by Carey L. Biron; editing by Jon Hemming and Laurie Goering)


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